Nyepi Day – the “Day of Silence” – marks the Balinese New Year. It is both a cultural imperative and an iconic event of powerful significance, and it literally stops all activity on the island for one full day of the year. The airport and all transportation hubs are closed and everyone is confined indoors. Working is not permitted. No-one, except for the black-clad pecalang, the traditional keepers of village order, is permitted on the streets. Apart from emergency vehicles, no traffic is allowed.
Silence rules the day. Noise, TV and music is strongly discouraged. No fires can be lit, and at night, lights – if used at all – must be kept low and not be visible from outside a residence. Entertainment and bodily pleasures are prohibited, as is travelling. Some communities may fast, others may ban talking altogether, while still others may even disconnect the electricity supply to whole villages.
The twenty four hour period is dedicated to introspection and reflection, and the day’s restrictions are designed to eliminate all barriers to achieving that aim. Mythologically, it is a time when evil spirits emerge from the sea to fly over the island, looking for signs of human activity that might provide a receptacle for their evil. With no lights, no noise and no activity to be seen, there is nothing to pique their interest and encourage them to linger. In this way Bali remains free of the forces of darkness for another year.
Although primarily a Balinese Hindu occasion, non-Hindu residents of Bali have always honoured the tradition as well. Perhaps not to the same extent as the Balinese in terms of fasting, not watching TV and engaging in reflective practice, but they have always arranged their activities to avoid being out in the streets, and in keeping residential noise and light emissions to undetectable levels. Tourists get more leeway, as long as they confine themselves to activities within hotel grounds. Even so, no-one has traditionally been allowed on the streets or beaches, with alert pecalang keeping a careful lookout for transgressors who may be counselled, disciplined or fined.
Some of my foreign acquaintances, both tourists and residents, choose to leave Bali during Nyepi, or to check into a hotel with spacious grounds to give themselves a little more personal freedom. I can understand this, especially if they have kids. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to keep them quiet for 24 hours without the stimulation of activities, the soporific effect of TV, or the comfort of air-conditioning.
However for me, Nyepi is a highlight. It always has been during the time I have been living in Bali. I enjoy the quiet, the lack of chaos and the sense of complete spiritual peace that descends on the place. I don’t mind being sequestered in my villa for a day and a night. I welcome the time for thinking, for reading and for reflection. I don’t see the restrictions as an impost, I see them as an opportunity. My great fortune is that I cannot remember ever having been bored, and this stands me in good stead on Nyepi Day. A rich internal world is truly a blessing.
Government authorities here generally use sanctions to encourage the observance of the day’s restrictions for everyone, even to the extent of sometimes going too far to ensure this. This year, their call for cable TV providers to shut down all transmission for 24 hours was well-meant, but not particularly well thought-out. It’s not just Bali’s Hindus that would be affected by such a shut-down – it would also be the patrons of hotels, which are already allowed to provide some reprieve from Nyepi restrictions for foreigners. After all, surely devout Hindus can simply choose not to watch cable TV?
So given the purported strength of the Bali government’s conviction about the sanctity of Nyepi Day, why are we starting to see an erosion of restrictions? Why is a day that is central to Balinese core cultural beliefs being gradually changed to accommodate special interests? Already reports are coming in that, despite beaches always having been off-limits on this day, an exception is now being made for surfers, who will not have to abide by Nyepi restrictions, on Bali’s far west coast.
Now, in the interests of “religious harmony” – or maybe pressure from elsewhere in the archipelago – Bali’s Governor has announced that Muslims will be permitted to use the streets to attend Friday prayers. Mosques have been “requested” not to use amplified calls to prayer, or amplified sermons on the day. However, it seems that no actual prohibition has been put in place to ensure silence in the surrounding community. Interestingly, there appears to be no corresponding relaxation of Nyepi restrictions for members of any other religious faiths to attend services.
I spoke to a Muslim acquaintance about this, because I was curious as to why it was necessary to physically attend a place of worship on the one day of the year where such attendance might conflict with a different set of religious and cultural imperatives, especially in a Hindu-majority region. His response was one of disbelief. “But we must go to prayers”, he said, “this is our religion.” I assured him that I understood, and gently pointed out that, for the Balinese, Nyepi Day and its attendant prohibitions concerning silence – and not using the streets – were also an integral part of their religion and culture.
“You don’t understand”, he said. “It is our religion and we must pray. For Bali people, it doesn’t matter. It is just a ceremony.” He’s right; I don’t understand. Not being an adherent of any faith, I guess I hold the mistaken belief that a person’s communication with their god occurs in their heart, and not necessarily in a specific geographical location.
And before people start moaning and shrieking that I am picking on a specific religion, relax. My point is not about religion, it is about Nyepi Day and its observance in Balinese culture. It is a precious and rare event, the importance of which should not be eroded by surfers, or prayer-attendees, or anyone else who decides that their personal wishes should trump the observance of this day.
What’s next? I fear that as more vocal groups start demanding that they be allowed to go where they want, and do what they want on Nyepi Day, its significance will continue to erode in the same way that Bali’s cultural landscape is already eroding. What will be left of this day in ten years? Just another public holiday with a mandatory one minute’s silence to commemorate the ghost of Nyepi?
I hope not. I really hope not.
FOLLOW UP POST: Post-Nyepi Reflections – where it all went wrong